A British Expat Speaks: Five Life Lessons I’ve Learned From Americans

Americans are always looking at the Big Sky. (Photo: AP/The Denver Post, Helen H. Richardson)

Americans are always looking at the Big Sky. (Photo: AP/The Denver Post, Helen H. Richardson)

While my British accent hasn’t changed that much, there are definitely things I’ve picked up over the years from my fellow Americans (including saying “learned” instead of “learnt”).

The sky’s the limit
While I still have some residual British “Yes, but…” and “What if….?” in me, the new me is much more likely to go for it. In every aspect of American life you have people who have made it against all odds.

Take Bill Clinton for example; he was born in Arkansas, one of the poorest states. His father died three months before he was born; his grandparents raised him while his mother trained as a nurse. His stepfather was an abusive gambler and alcoholic, and Clinton regularly had to protect his mother and younger brother against him. Still he made it to college, scored a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford and obtained a Law degree from Yale before moving on to bigger things.

On a more modest scale, I was over 40 when I switched to a writing career, snagged a major publisher and appeared on radio and TV. Would that have happened in the U.K.? Probably not.

They can only say “no”
Cousin of the first point. I probably hear this as often as you hear “Ah yes, but..” in the U.K. The American viewpoint is a) if you don’t ask, you don’t get, and b) what’s the worst that can happen?

With my new book for example, I approached several prominent education journalists for reviews. While most of them didn’t even respond, a handful not only reviewed the book (positively) but agreed to give me quotes (blurbs) that are now on the cover. The worst that could have happened? No one responded. I had nothing to lose really.

Decline without detail
Americans are great at declining invitations without guilt. Unlike Brits, who tend to give tortuous details, Americans simply say “I’m sorry, we have other plans”, or just “I’m sorry but thanks for including us.” Most of the time, people just want to know if they have to feed you. 

A note to Brits who insist on full disclosure when declining an invitation: Americans, being helpful, friendly folk, will figure out how you can attend their soirée and the other event that you claim is causing a conflict. “We won’t be able to come because we have to be at a school meeting/church event/bar mitzvah at the same time” is inevitably met with “Oh that’s no problem, the Butchers and the Bakers have that same issue. They’re just coming along later.”

So if you simply don’t want to go to the event, don’t fabricate an excuse. You might find yourself in a bit of a corner.

Voicing discontent
OK, so I also have some of that British dislike of making a fuss and complaining about things, but I’m learning. Not being a big rare meat eater, I always ask for my meat to be cooked medium to well done. (I know, such a Philistine.) Sometimes it still comes out pink or red, which I simply can’t eat. I will politely ask for it to be cooked a little more, which apparently can be very insulting to chefs. A few times said chef has basically charred it, which is equally unacceptable to me – and I’m not paying for it. If I have the time, I’ll wait for a new piece of meat but if my fellow diners are almost done, I will forgo it and tell the restaurant to deduct the meal off the bill. I can imagine the scene if I did this in the U.K.: I’d be “making a fuss” or, worse, behaving “like an American.”

Not wrong, just different
This is more of a “what I’ve learned from living in the U.S.,” but the point is, just because it’s British doesn’t make it right, and it’s not wrong just because it’s American. I’m talking about language, spelling and customs.

As I said in a previous post, just because it’s bad manners in the U.K. to use only a fork to eat, that’s not the case here. So, they mix up the “e” and “r” in words like theater? Before Dr. Johnson’s First Dictionary in 1755, so did many Brits.

Oh and if I met this guy while out in my car, I would be the first to join in. Don’t see this much on the M25 do you?

Join @MindTheGap_BBCA on Twitter today (October 30) at 2 pm ET for an open forum for Brits in America. Tweet your questions using hashtag #MindTheChat.

See more:
Conversations Overheard in America
Six Things This Brit Doesn’t Miss About the UK
Relax, Brits: It’s OK to Make a Fuss in the U.S.